We reached Trolltunga after seven hours, 13.5km and 1,000m of elevation gain. The fog rolled in as a line of 35 people waited to take their picture on the iconic cliff. Translating to ‘Troll’s Tongue’, Trolltunga juts out of a steep mountainside 700m above Lake Ringedalsvatnet near Odda in south-eastern Norway. Formed 10,000 years ago during the Ice Age when a glacier frozen to the mountain broke off, it has in recent years become one of Norway’s most famous geological sites – and one of its most controversial.
Deciding we’d wait until the next morning to have our picture taken on the rock, my hiking partner Jacqueline and I were shown to our tent by our day guide. The only ones in our group to stay overnight, we tossed our rucksacks in the already-pitched tent about 500m from the cliff edge and took a nap. A few hours later, our overnight guide Erlend Indrearne arrived with a young couple from China who would camp with us. It was raining, so we all took shelter in the small emergency cabin next to our tents to cook meatballs over a single burner and drink cups of Solboer Sirip (a redcurrant juice) mixed with chilled water. Wind blew in through the cabin’s broken window, and the wooden floors creaked with every shift in bodyweight as we tried to get comfortable.
View image of Trolltunga, which translates to ‘Troll’s Tongue’, juts out 700m above Norway's Lake Ringedalsvatnet (Credit: Credit: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images)
You may also be interested in:
• The Swedish word poached by the world
• The first light after months of dark
• Denmark’s secret food island
“How many hikers usually have to turn around?” I asked, laying a damp sleeping bag from the storage room across mine and Jacqueline’s laps. I thought back to the beginning of the hike when two people out of our group of 20 turned back after 45 minutes of steep hiking.
“At least one or two in every group.” Indrearne replied, dishing the warm meatballs onto five plates. “Many of them come unprepared and don’t understand the intensity of nature here. Or they come with no respect and leave their garbage scattered everywhere.”
“Is it just tourists who leave behind rubbish?” I asked. “Or Norwegians too?”
“It’s really the tourists who take advantage of allemansratten,” he said. “Norwegians know better. We were raised on fjellvettreglene.”
View image of Norway visitors often take advantage of allemansratten, an ancient 'right to roam' (Credit: Credit: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images)
Although a traditional right from ancient times, allemansratten has been part of the Outdoor Recreation Act since 1957. The rules are simple: you can sleep anywhere as long as you stay at least 150m away from the nearest residency, and if you sleep more than two nights in the same place, you must ask the landowner’s permission. Most important, though, is that those who practice allemansratten should have respect for nature, the wildlife and the locals.
Norway is not the only country to practice this ‘right to roam’ law. Other countries include Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Latvia, Austria, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. What separates Norway from the rest, however, is fjellvettreglene.
Fjellvettreglene taught us nature doesn’t care about our egos
Fjellvettreglene, known as Norway’s ‘mountain code’, was introduced after a several accidents occurred during Easter of 1950. After 15 people died in the elements during another Easter of 1967, the Norwegian Trekking Association and The Red Cross announced their campaign ‘Welcome to the mountains, but be responsible’. Fjellvettreglene, which encourages people to have a healthy and respectful relationship with nature, has since become a crucial part of Norwegian culture. It includes points such as planning your trip and reporting wherever you go, bringing necessary equipment to assist yourself and others, always knowing where you are, seeking shelter if necessary and feeling no shame in turning around.
“Fjellvettreglene taught us nature doesn’t care about our egos. We should show as much respect and take as much caution as possible. Take this hike, for example,” Indrearne explained. “For people who aren’t experienced hikers, this is considered extreme. Not many tourists realise that. For Norwegians, we’re hikers. We grew up with this nature. We know how powerful it can be.”
View image of Foreign hikers are angering Norwegians by leaving behind garbage (Credit: Credit: Ingunn B. Haslekaas/Getty Images)
Fascination for the outdoors comes naturally to Norwegians because of friluftsliv. Coined in 1859, the philosophical concept of frilufsliv means ‘free-air life’ and is used to illustrate the raw dedication and passion Norwegians have for nature. It equates the sensation of going backpacking in the mountains or camping on the shore with the feeling of being home.
But while frilufsliv encourages people to practice allemansratten and allemansratten encourages the love for frilufsliv, fjellvettreglene is the education to preserve and protect nature.
Trolltunga saw 1,800 visitors in one 2017 day alone
“Since Trolltunga is becoming a brand-new bucket-list item, we’re trying to educate the rest of the world now, too.”
While Odda, the nearby town to Trolltunga, has been called the ‘rotten apple’ of the Hardanger region because of its industrialised look, today the town accounts for 60% of Norway’s tourism – and it’s primarily because of Trolltunga. From just 1,000 tourists in the whole of 2010, Trolltunga saw 1,800 visitors in one 2017 day alone.
Indrearne explained this surge of tourists coming to Trolltunga. “People want the same picture they see on Instagram and Facebook. A lot don’t care about the experience of the hike. They just want proof that they did it, and they’re ruining the nature up here with their garbage.”
View image of Some regions of Norway have seen a 32% increase in tourism from 2015 to 2016
Nationally, Norway has experienced an 11% increase in tourism from 2015 to 2016, with some regions seeing as much as a 32% increase. But, while good for the economy, this tourism boom has become a threat to Norway’s ancient right to roam law.
“We’re proud of allemansratten here, but the truth is that it’s creating dangerous situations,” said Indrearne, shaking his head. “Norway has never had to regulate hikes before, but we believe Trolltunga may have to be one of the first. It’s become a big controversy.”
The amount of people up here takes hold of the nature
Used toilet paper, leftover barbeque grills, abandoned tents, sweet wrappers and plastic bottles can be found littered all around Trolltunga. Someone even wrote their name on the cliff in black pen. And with the high amount of people who come unprepared for such a strenuous hike, Norway’s leading hiking group, Friluftsliv, also has called for regulations on the number of tourists hiking to Trolltunga and other of the country’s threatened geological attractions. Lasse Heimdal, leader of the outdoor organisation, defended their stance by saying that it is “urgent that we now take measures to ensure that outdoor life is safeguarded.”
“The amount of people up here takes hold of the nature,” Indrearne continued. “On a busy day, you may have to wait in line for an hour and a half just to get a picture. To control this, we’d like to regulate how many people can hike in a day. As for camping, we believe passes should be a requirement and should be limited. Starting hike times should also have regulations so people don’t start too late and find themselves stuck up here. We also encourage people to do a guided hike. As guides, we’re trying to set examples for others to be respectful to the nature.”
View image of Erlend Indrearne: “We grew up with this nature. We know how powerful it can be” (Credit: Credit: Morten Falch Sortland/Getty Images)
The next morning, Jacqueline and I began the 13.5km descent. A rescue helicopter hummed low to the ground searching for a hiker. We walked past the long line of exhausted people waiting to take their picture on the cliff, some wearing sneakers wrapped in plastic bags and others in short sleeves shivering in the 5C wind. We stood in the back of the line, waiting to get our picture taken by Indrearne; the only way to get the iconic picture of the rock jutting upwards is by going on a guided hike where your guide suspends upside down 10 to 12m to take your photograph.
“Do we really want to wait for this picture?” I asked Jacqueline.
“No,” she replied. “Not really. It’s the scenery along the hike down I’d rather see.”
I nodded in agreement. We turned around and began our descent through Norway’s dramatic landscape, taking our time and remembering the rules of fjellvettreglene.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.